This is new for Rico McWilliams.
The South Carolina senior cornerback has seen his responsibility steadily increase since he arrived on campus. He went from making two starts as a freshman to six as a sophomore to 10 a season ago.
But he doesn’t feel that much like a fifth-year senior.
“The feeling is, I’m like a freshman now, because there’s a whole new coaching staff,” McWilliams said. “I’m learning just like how they’re learning. I just know the game probably more than how they do.”
A year ago, he made 32 tackles and broke up a pair of passes on a defense that took its share of heat. His cornerback position was especially scrutinized as the pass defense struggled, and corners spent the first half of the year allowing considerable cushion to wide receivers.
New coach Will Muschamp, on multiple occasions, expressed concern for the state of the secondary.
McWilliams said his experience playing corner hasn’t changed too much, and while the defense will be more physical, that doesn’t necessarily mean more tight coverage and pressing receivers on the outside. He said the defense will have an old-school, Pittsburgh Steelers-like feel.
And he also feels he’s making strides.
“I've improved mainly because I want to learn the game,” McWilliams said. “I wanted to learn the game all the time, but he’s going to make you know the game. You’ve got to know what everybody’s got to do. He’s just drawing the competitor out of me like back when I was little, like just wanted to win all the time.”
That’s driven him to spend extra time meeting with coaches and studying the playbook at home.
Across five years, he’s on his third defense. His first was a scheme run by Lorenzo Ward and Ellis Johnson. Then came one season under Jon Hoke, and now Muschamp’s preferred approach.
One aspect McWilliams has enjoyed is facing off against a high-tempo offense in practice every day. He said the changes on both sides of the ball benefit the other in subtle ways.
“At the same time, we’re getting them better,” McWilliams said. “Because they might go against a physical defense. So if they’re getting that the whole time in practice, then the game’s going to be easy. Like we’re doing up-tempo, so when we’re going against an up-tempo team like Texas A&M, we’re going to look how we look.”